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In Memoriam: Helen M. Ranney, MD


April 08, 2010  |  

Pioneering Woman Physician-Scientist

University of California, San Diego Professor Emeritus Helen M. Ranney, MD, whose distinguished career was noteworthy both for her groundbreaking contributions to the study of sickle cell anemia, and for the many historic “firsts” she achieved as a pioneering woman in medicine, passed away on Monday, April 5, 2010 in La Jolla, California, surrounded by family and friends.  She would have been 90 on April 12. 

Dr. Ranney was recruited to UC San Diego in 1973 as the first woman to chair a Department of Medicine.  She was widely honored for her research in the field of blood disorders, which included the first description of the abnormal blood cell structure and genetic factors linked to sickle cell anemia, a disease that primarily affects African-Americans. She was awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medical Achievement Award in 1972 for this work. Her accomplishments as a scientist and physician paralleled her success as a female physician. Her career milestones included serving as the first woman president of the Association of American Physicians, and the first woman honored as a Distinguished Physician of the Veterans Administration.  In addition to being elected to the National Academy of Sciences, she served as President of the American Society of Hematology, she was a Master of the American College of Physicians, and she was a member of the Institute of Medicine.

Helen M. Ranney, MD

“Helen M. Ranney has served as a role model for countless women and men, all attempting to emulate her warmth, teaching style, inquisitiveness and impact on her field,” said Kenneth Kaushansky, MD, current Chair of the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego. Kaushansky holds the Helen M. Ranney Endowed Chair, established at UC San Diego in 1991 in her honor. “Helen’s career was marked by her intelligent approach to both clinical and research issues, her ability to achieve and inspire greatness, and her incredible wit. She will be remembered as an intelligent and inventive mover and shaker in American academic medicine.”

Born April 12, 1920, in Summer Hill, Cayuga County, New York, Dr. Ranney was raised on a dairy farm.  Her father, a farmer, and her mother, a teacher, encouraged her to pursue a professional career. She entered Barnard College with plans to study law, but in her own words she discovered that “economists, sociologists, and the like study things you can’t fix, even if you could find out what was wrong. Medicine attempts to fix what it studies.” 

She graduated cum laude from Barnard and applied to study medicine at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Rejected on her first attempt, she took a job as a laboratory technician, which gave her early exposure to laboratory-based studies. World War II opened up new opportunities for women, with so many men serving in the military. She reapplied to Columbia and was accepted. After earning her MD in 1947, she remained on the Columbia faculty for almost two decades. She was honored as one of the “Columbians Ahead of Their Time” during the university’s 250th anniversary celebration and was profiled as an alumna who “won renown for her excellence as a practitioner, teacher and researcher.” She continued her academic career in New York at Yeshiva University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and finally at the State University of New York-Buffalo, until 1973, when she was recruited to the newly established UC San Diego School of Medicine.

“I came (to UC San Diego) because it looked as though it was going to be very interesting, because of the very good people they had. My devotion has been to new things that were getting started, and there was a lot of building to be done,” she once reflected.  She was a dominant figure in the development of UC San Diego’s academic medical center as a top-ranking research, patient care and educational institution.

“Helen Ranney was an outstanding physician-scientist, a leader in medicine, a respected mentor, and an influential figure in our history,” said David Brenner, MD, Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences at UC San Diego. “More than any other person, UC San Diego School of Medicine today reflects her vision and leadership.” 

“In addition to being an outstanding physician-scientist, Helen Ranney was an inspirational doctor, teacher and mentor. She set high standards for a generation of medical students, residents and fellows, and her legacy lives on in those she taught,” said Maria C. Savoia, MD, Vice Dean for Medical Education at UC San Diego and one of Dr. Ranney’s former Chief Residents.

When she retired from her faculty position at UC San Diego in 1990, she remained active as a physician and scientist while serving as a board member, advisor and consultant to the Alliance Pharmaceutical Corporation, and working as an advocate for medically underserved populations.

Dr. Ranney was one of the individuals honored in a 2005 National Library of Medicine exhibition on influential women physicians, called “Changing the Face of Medicine.”  In her comments for the exhibition, she downplayed her accomplishments.  She noted that “In my class in medical school there was a class of 120 and there were 5 women. And that was about standard, plus or minus a few, for most of the Ivy League schools. There were clearly some of the students who rather resented the fact that there were women in the class, but you know, one didn't really take that terribly seriously.”

She is survived by her nieces, Alesia Ranney-Marinelli, of Katonah, New York, and Patricia Ranney, of Ballston Lake, New York. 

There will be a visitation from 5-8 p.m. on Friday, April 9 at the El Camino Mortuary, 5600 Carroll Canyon Road, San Diego.  A Mass celebrating her life will be held at Mary Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church on Saturday, April 10 at 11 a.m. followed by a reception at the UCSD Faculty Club.  

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the UC Foundation /Helen M. Ranney Memorial Scholarship, 9500 Gilman Drive, San Diego, CA 92093-0853.

A UCSD Memorial Celebration is scheduled for 1 p.m., June 7 at Hojel Hall, Institute of the Americas.

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Media Contact: Kim Edwards, 619-543-6163,

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